The Star Bright Dalang Singing Competition Finals took place on January 25, 2015. Despite having been abruptly postponed a week (due to government shuffles), nevertheless the production sparkled. Five LED screens adorned the temporary stage in Workers’ Park, a sixth was set up for simultaneous broadcast, lasers beamed through the nighttime sky, and glow wands had been distributed to audience members seated in the front section. The total audience was estimated to be around 3,000 people who gathered to listen to 13 migrant workers sing popular songs a la Idol.
Readers of this blog are aware that Dalang is a precinct or street office in Longhua New Town. Dalang has a population of 500,000 migrant workers and 8,000 locals. Dalang, more than any other area of Shenzhen, has turned to public culture not only to manage, but also to attract and keep skilled workers within and despite its constantly shifting demographic.
This was the fifth year that the Dalang Culture Office organized Star Bright Dalang (星光大浪), a year long event of structured competitions. Since 2009, every Saturday evening in the Dalang shopping plaza there are open mike singing competitions. On the last Saturday of the month, the winners of the monthly open mike competitions compete for a place in the year-end finals finals. In 2014, over 500 young workers participated in Star Bright Dalang.
Dalang invests time and money in the final competition. Preparation for the finals entails the production of a theme video of contestants singing in landmark areas of Dalang, individual videos of contestants introducing themselves and their love of music, a rehearsed show, some singing training, and make-up and costume tips as well as a small stipend for participating and costs.
In their personal videos, contestants emphasized their love of music and their determination to pursue their dreams. Several mentioned a girlfriend’s critical encouragement to breakout of the ordinary and take a chance. Others expressed how they hoped their singing would bring the audience happiness and move their hearts. All made it clear that passion motivated them to enter the competition; they thanked the Culture Office for giving them a platform on which to show their best efforts.
According to several Dalang culture workers, the sincerity of contestants made all the hard work and overtime to produce the program worthwhile. Unlike professional singers, the Dalang Secretary of Culture told me Dalang workers sing from the heart and that is why everyone appreciates the show. The judges for the final come from upper level ministries, including the Shenzhen Music federation. The Secretary also added that the singers’ authenticity and true love of music–rather than talent or skills–earned the judges respect and help.
Indeed, as contestants sang those around me would exclaim, “Wow, she sounds just like the original!” Or knowingly comment, “He really cares about this song, you can tell he’s singing from the heart.” And I confess that the singers’earnest vocals did resonate in me and I found myself humming along to overplayed pop songs and melodramatic ballads.
Dalang culture workers referred to contestants as “young workers (青工)” in contrast to more prevalent terms such as “migrant worker (外来工)” or “farmer worker (农民工)”. The Dalang nomenclature strikes me as important because (1) it aligns the Street Office’s future with these young people; (2) it directs our attention to the increasing sophistication of rural and township migrants to Shenzhen, and; (3) it emphasizes the spirit of youth as the spirit of Shenzhen despite and against the brutal and ongoing commodification of their labor in Dalang’s factories, shops, and companies.
Thought du jour? Star Bright Dalang celebrates the pure aspirations of young workers, channeling their dreams and sincerity into politically acceptable forms. Moreover, it is precisely the young people’s sincerity that smooths over their bumpy transition from rural student to wage laborer in Shenzhen’s lower class. And even though I respect and contribute to Dalang’s efforts, in the glow of youthful sincerity, I really, really wish we gave our young people better than upscale karaoke.